The sudden reversal of Beijing’s zero-Covid policy , and Hong Kong’s subsequent easing of its own restrictions, highlights not only the futility of zero-Covid but also reveals that the city’s bid to adhere to the mainland’s stance has been a fool’s errand. While many commentators have hailed the Hong Kong government’s recent decision to abolish the 0+3 scheme and drop scanning requirements , it is in fact an indictment of its policy planning and learning capabilities that this latest round of relaxation comes at least six months too late. As a point of comparison, Singapore abolished almost all quarantine requirements for inbound travellers, got rid of its SafeEntry app , and ended its outdoor mask mandate in March. Hong Kong could have followed suit soon after, but authorities took more than eight months to catch up with these moves, and pointless masking rules remain. Hong Kong ends ‘0+3’ Covid regime for arrivals but keeps vaccine pass scheme The delays in getting rid of many of its Covid restrictions from 2020 have damaged Hong Kong’s status as a financial hub and affected its people’s mental well-being unnecessarily. The city’s economy shrank by more than 3 per cent in the first three-quarters of this year even as other developed Asian economies grew at a healthy clip. Hong Kong’s zero-Covid stance also did not save more lives compared to the rest of developed Asia. Now that the mainland’s zero-Covid policy is in tatters, Hong Kong would look even more foolish if it were to maintain the rest of its pandemic restrictions. Risks facing the mainland The mainland’s zero-Covid U-turn should be a wake-up call for analysts and commentators who believe Chinese authorities are pragmatic, adaptive, and capable of taking the long view. Zero-Covid represented the very opposite of these qualities; its abrupt reversal may also reveal how unprepared local governments are for a sudden transition to a mitigation strategy. There are at least three major risks facing the mainland as it tries to find a way out of the pandemic without an unacceptably high number of deaths. The first, as many analysts have pointed out, is that China’s elderly population remains under-vaccinated – compared to the elderly populations of most developed countries at the start of this year – and the healthcare infrastructure in many parts of China is underprepared and under-resourced to cope with a large surge in infections and severe cases. Both vulnerabilities are largely the consequence of the zero-Covid strategy that created the delusion that the virus could be eliminated, and led to scarce resources being allocated to Covid-19 suppression – mass testing, centralised quarantine facilities, and lockdowns – rather than to mitigation, which includes increasing the vaccination rate, and ramping up hospital and ICU capacity. The second risk is that of public scepticism, distrust and anger if the expected surge in cases results in overwhelmed hospitals and an unacceptably high number of deaths. Having spent most of the last three years creating excessive fear about Covid-19 and denigrating other countries that decided to live with the virus, the Chinese propaganda machinery has now swung to the other extreme of playing down fears about the Omicron variant. This is disingenuous and could later provoke a backlash from the population if the tragedy Hong Kong saw in the first half of this year were to occur in the mainland. The third risk is that local governments would hide or under-report Covid deaths, both to avoid the public anger that a high coronavirus mortality rate might cause, and to evade punishment from a central government that has set them an impossible mission: to loosen Covid restrictions and boost the economy without causing a public health crisis. Hong Kong must avoid short-sightedness As for the Hong Kong government, there are at least two main lessons it should draw from its pursuit of the failed zero-Covid policy. The first is the importance of maintaining cognitive diversity and having a (healthy) debate over policy alternatives – at least internally, if not publicly. Even if Hong Kong had no choice but to nominally adhere to the mainland’s zero-Covid stance, it was always incumbent on the Hong Kong government to have a Plan B (mitigation) should Plan A (suppression) fail. The authorities did not have a Plan B not only because almost all resources were dedicated to Plan A, but also because they had gone out of their way to vilify other governments that were pursuing mitigation. In hindsight, there was really no need to politicise and moralise a public health issue, especially since it was common knowledge that China’s zero-Covid approach was the odd one out and increasingly out of sync with the rest of the world. What were the chances that we were right and everyone else was wrong? Clearly, the authorities should never have believed their own propaganda; they should always have distinguished between what they have to say in public (adherence to zero-Covid) and what they must prepare for behind the scenes (to live with Covid). This cognitive diversity is what gives organisations and governments adaptability and resilience. Hong Kong’s ‘0+0’ Covid switch long-awaited, but how soon can city bounce back? The second lesson is that government’s anticipatory capacity must be strengthened. What Hong Kong’s long adherence to zero-Covid revealed was a failure to anticipate that this policy could be so quickly abandoned in the mainland, and that sporadic, short-lived protests might undo a policy that was explicitly backed by the highest levels of the Communist Party. It turned out that persistence with zero-Covid was hardly victorious. Given the conflicting signals that the Hong Kong authorities gave even just a few days before the latest announcement, it appears that there was little coordination (much less anticipation) of what Hong Kong would do if the mainland suddenly abandoned zero-Covid. While a sudden policy U-turn might work for something that was as obviously flawed as zero-Covid, it is unlikely to work for other long-standing, but less obviously flawed policies. Managing and executing future policy shifts well would require superior anticipatory capabilities, qualities for which the Hong Kong government is hardly known. As Hong Kong charts a long-delayed return to a post-pandemic normal, one can only hope that the city’s policymakers are no longer shackled by unworkable, utopian policies engineered by planners in Beijing. One also hopes that policymaking in Hong Kong would be driven more by science and evidence, and less by having to accommodate an increasingly ideological and less pragmatic leadership in Beijing. Donald Low is senior lecturer and professor of practice in public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, director of the university’s Institute for Emerging Market Studies, and director of Leadership and Public Policy Executive Education.